By Sarah Gray Barr
About a week past his 80th birthday, Tom Brown of Clemmons, North Carolina, plans another trip to find lost apples. He rises early, putting the sun to shame, and comes home late. He crosses many states in a day in pursuit of these forgotten fruits.
The type of apples Brown looks for are not the common Red Delicious, Granny Smith, or Honeycrisp. No, he looks for heritage apples, the type of apples that served the palate of grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents. The apples of the founding fathers and the first Americans.
Greasy Skin, Stump the World, and Rusty Gabe may not sound as appetizing as Lady Washington, Carolina Beauty or Golden Harvest, but all are equal apples of the eye to these fruit fanatics.
“I just want to get these apples back into circulation. It’s important to preserve our agricultural heritage, and these apples don’t live a long time. I might see a tree on one trip, and it’s gone by the next,” Brown said.
For over two decades, Brown has hunted for these Appalachian apples that have potentially been lost to time. Once a research engineer, Brown spends his retirement days organizing visits to fruit festivals and apple adventures. When he is not crossing the Virginias and Carolinas, Brown works on his orchard, which boasts hundreds of heritage apples.
Apple hunting is a word-of-mouth business. Many of Brown’s contacts are older, the remaining population who remember the days when families bragged about these heirloom apples. For them, the apples provide a source of food for the stomach and pride for the heart.
To date, Brown has discovered over 1,200 types of apples thought to be extinct, fighting bugs and blights that seek to kill these trees.
“The time to find them is running out,” Brown said.
Keeping their memory alive
UNC-Chapel Hill senior Erin Owens reaps the fruits of these heritage trees. She cannot remember a time when these rare apples were not a part of her life. About 20 years ago, her family purchased property in Avery County, North Carolina. The property itself is wooded, but toward the back lies a secret meadow, forgotten in the past.
Blackberry brambles stand guard around the meadow. A little creek protects the acreage from the side. The land bears a crumbling homestead, abandoned by its former residents.
But the meadow’s boon is the scattered apple trees that brandish Erin Owens’ favorite sorts of apples. An American Russet, Yellow Winesap, Lowry, and a Mammoth Black Twig grow in the meadow, each tree several hundred years old.
“We have to keep these apples alive, their memory alive. They are the heart of America,” Owens said.
Lost in time, or are they?
The Avery County Extension Service helped the Owens family identify these apples and graft them. One apple that was unidentifiable is both green and red and covered with spots. Owens dubbed the mysterious fruit the “Sweet Creek” apple after its flavor and proximity to the creek on the property. She said it was crisp, sweet, and a little tart and reminded her of the creek. A box of Sweet Creek, Lowry and American Russet apples made its way to her home in Chapel Hill after Fall Break.
The Owens family opted to have the trees grafted and new trees planted in front of their house. Doug Hundley, former agricultural extension agent and apple enthusiast, helped to both identify and graft the apples. He said that grafting is the best way to make sure that these apples live on for future generations.
“Old antique heirloom apples were just as good or better than commercial, but have been lost to the test of time. That’s why we have to save what we have left,” Hundley said.
Grafting takes the scion of an original plant and binds it to another plant stock within the same genus, allowing for apples that would otherwise die out to be recreated. The days of Johnny Appleseed have long since ended.
In the past, seedlings were used to create more apple trees, but apples are cross-pollinators, which means that cross-bred apples could potentially be weaker. Within the heritage apple community, mother apple trees are essential because they provide the necessary scions to reproduce the trees.
The Southern Heritage Apple Orchard at Horne Creek Farm holds 850 trees of 425 varieties of heritage apples. Horne Creek Farm works to recreate the lives of the Hauser family in the early 20th century. In 1989, a restoration project took place to restore the former Hauser family farm to its early 1900s appearance, including replanting the former apple orchard, which at the time ironically held only a pear tree.
Through the work of Lee Calhoun, a southern apple expert, Horne Creek was able to restore the Hauser family orchard and also create the Southern Heritage Apple Orchard. Through Calhoun’s donation, the Southern Heritage Apple Orchard is home to the last trees of nearly 200 heritage varieties.
“Once you lose an apple, you can’t just get it back,” Lisa Turney, the site manager for Horne Creek, said.
The “backbone” of Appalachia
Historically, American families in the 1800s and beyond kept apple trees that ripened at different times of the year. It was a constant food source that could feed large families. Apples could be eaten, turned into cider, or used as animal feed. The versatile fruit was the backbone and cash crop of southern agriculture. Apples ripen within a two-week period. Depending on the variety, heritage apples ripen as early as July and as late as November and can last through the winter.
When other crops failed, apples fed Appalachia.
“It’s not just about apples, it’s about the family stories behind them,” Turney said.
Today, commercial apples grace grocery store shelves. Gala, Red Delicious, and Granny Smith are the most popular choices. These apples cover acres of North Carolina. But these commercial apples are threatened by the same challenges that heritage apples face.
Kenny Barnwell is a seventh-generation apple farmer on one side of his family, and eighth on the other. Except for college, there has never been a time when Barnwell has lived without an apple tree 50 yards away. He knows apples. And he knows that in Henderson Country, the threats to his commercial apples are fire blight, microclimates, and urban encroachment.
One cold frost at the wrong time can kill an entire apple crop, and there were two bad frosts this past April. Barnwell has taken to spreading his trees across Henderson County. Heritage apples do not have this luxury. It only takes one bad frost, one rezoning order, one tree being cut down, to lose an entire heritage apple variety forever.
In 1905, there were at least 14,000 varieties of apples grown by Americans. Now, a grocery store is exceptional if it has more than 10 options.
To the apple enthusiasts and experts, losing the heritage varieties is losing pieces of history forever. But with enough dedication and enough time, these heritage fruits may be restored to their former glory.
How about them apples?
Edited by Izzy D’Alo